Relationship with Austin

By on April 30, 2012

El Paso Wins Fight,” read the headline in Sunday’s El Paso Times. Local, state, and national media coverage throughout the week has agreed on the particulars: a world championship boxing match was scheduled at UTEP, then it was cancelled, now it will go on if provisions are met. What was missing in all of the coverage, however, was any acknowledgement that UTEP and UT-Austin have negotiated a shared relationship for more than a century.

The Chávez-Lee fight is only the latest chapter in a story that began before UTEP even opened its doors. The issues, eras, and protagonists have changed over time, but two things have remained constant: First, the University (once Texas College of Mines, now UTEP) has always been overseen by the UT Board of Regents (though the legal definition of that oversight has changed); and second, the folks in Austin and the folks in El Paso have frequently disagreed on what was best for the borderland community. This is not to say that UTEP and Austin have not benefited from the relationship. It is to say that this relationship–like all relationships that matter–has required give-and-take over time. Three cases from the past century provide context for this week’s news.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, El Paso residents appealed to the University of Texas to open a small mining school in the border town. The University first objected on the grounds that it already had an array of courses leading toward training as a mining engineer. When the University stopped offering those courses, El Paso residents jumped at the opportunity and successfully claimed a small mining school for their community in 1914. Within two years, however, El Pasoans were already frustrated with a mere mining school—they wanted teacher training and opportunities to study other subjects. As a result, they founded a competing junior college that ultimately merged with the mining school to create a combined city college and laid the foundation for today’s colleges of engineering and liberal arts at UTEP.

After World War II, the growing college sought a new name to reflect its expanding mission. Its first choice—The University of Texas at El Paso—was rejected by the Regents who saw it as a threat to the prominence of the institution in Austin. The name “Texas Western College” was assigned to the institution in 1949, distancing the two institutions by both geography and mission. Within two decades, however, the Austin agenda had shifted such that the institution in the state capital now wanted to position itself as the “flagship” in a statewide system of schools. Now Austin would benefit from having a University of Texas at El Paso and made the change in 1967, in the same administrative moment that it acquired branches in Arlington (1965) and Dallas (1969) and established new branches in San Antonio (1969), Permian Basin (1969), and Houston (1972).

One final example from the recent past. During the 1980s, public funding for higher education contracted sharply at both the state and federal levels. Increased attention to funds revealed an imbalance within the University of Texas System, prompting MALDEF to lead a 1987 class-action lawsuit charging the state with discrimination against Mexican-Americans in southern Texas. The Brownsville jury stopped short of finding the state guilty of discrimination, but significant changes tell the story without a legal decision. The System added branches in the McAllen area (1989) and Brownsville (1991) and removed the hold on doctoral degrees that had limited UTEP to a single program. The state legislature appropriated several million dollars to the higher education in the border region in the mid-1990s; numerous programs and buildings on the UTEP campus bear witness.

And so continues the relationship between El Paso and Austin, the capital and the borderlands. UTEP’s history, the city’s identity, and the region’s viability must be seen within this larger context. Today, official statistics report that The University of Texas at El Paso has the fourth-largest enrollment of the nine UT System academic schools (22,051 in fall 2010), fifth-largest budget ($364.8 million in FY 2011), and the third-largest research expenditures ($66.0 million in FY 2010). Recognition of the relationship is the first and necessary step in influencing its future.

Keith A. Erekson served as the Executive Director of UTEP's Centennial Celebration from December 2011 through May 2014. Learn more at keitherekson.com.